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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Past Life - Chapter 1, scene 2

(Latest installment. To read the story in order, go to the Writing - Past Life (story) category)

Two hours earlier, at 12:30 am., Katherine had been woken by an insistent banging on the door to her flat. Eyes blurry from two hours of sleep, she looked at the bed side clock, gradually forcing the glowing digits into focus.

Groaning, she wondered who it could be at this hour of night and dragged herself out of bed, pulling her pink towelling wrap around her as she headed toward the door.

"Oh!" she said, taking in the two police uniforms on her doorstep. The senior one, a woman in her early forties, wore large gold framed glasses with a fringe of brown hair protruding from under her hat. She was about the same height as Katherine but with a heavier frame and a stony, uncommunicative, expression on her face.

"Katherine Shuuman?" she asked.

Katherine didn't like hearing her name used as a question any more than she liked being called "Kath" or "Kate".

"Yes."

"May we come in?" - another question.

"I suppose ... " Her words were not complete before she found herself watching the two uniforms walk past her. "Door on the right", she said to their backs, directing them into the lounge of her one bedroom flat. Apparently a police uniform trumped a queen in her own castle.

Katherine noted that the second policeman was much younger - early twenties perhaps, certainly younger than Katherine - but quite tall with short blonde hair that had previously been hidden under the cap; now tucked under his arm.

Katherine followed them into the lounge and motioned toward the sofa. The woman sat, but the young man remained standing and drew a notebook from his uniform pocket. Katherine sat in the easy chair and, as if it was a cue, the policewoman spoke.

"Can we ask were you were Monday evening from about 6:00 pm.?" So, Katherine thought, now it was questions about questions. Katherine felt detached from the situation, an observer noting its details rather than a participant in it.; perhaps it had to do with being woken from sleep.

"Yes, but what is this all about?"

"We will get to that in a minute" the woman said; obviously not prepared to give any ground.

Katherine obliged with a run down of her movements from the time she had left the university Monday evening. She had cycled back home to the flat by 6:00 pm.; called her friend, Jenny, and arranged to meet for a meal at "Le Cafe". She had changed clothes and got a cab there arriving about 7:00 pm.. They ate until 9 or 9:30, not really sure of the exact time, then came home by cab and went to bed at 10:30. She was sure of that time because "Night Sounds" had just started on the radio when she turned it off.

"And Jenny's full name and address?" the policewoman asked.

"Jenny Crawford. seventeen Somerfield Place. Her phone number is 027 442 074." It was a small thing, but somehow providing the phone number that hadn't been requested restored a little of Katherine's sense of being in control in her own home.

While she had been talking, the younger policeman had been scribbling notes. Now the policewoman glanced at him and nodded, which seemed to be some sort of signal because he immediately folded his notebook and left the room.

The policewoman looked at Katherine and, for the first time, something vaguely resembling a smile crossed her face.

"My name is Jean Peyton; Inspector Jean Peyton", the woman said. For the first time she held out her identity card for Katherine to see.

Katherine detected a note of pride in the way the woman used her rank to qualify her name and at the same time mentally reprimanded herself for not asking for identification at the door: people had been robbed and killed through such oversights.

"I apologise for the late intrusion and the questions. But there are things we have to check in cases like these."

"Cases like what?" Katherine asked.

"Cases of suspicious death. I am afraid that Professor Bollinger was found dead on Monday evening."

Katherine knew that something bad was coming, the police seldom called in the middle of the night with good news, but this was not what Katherine had expected. For some reason her mind was already wondering whether something had happened to Jen after they had left Le Cafe, or Katherine's parents perhaps, but Jeff? No, that was definitely not on her mind - nothing ever happened to Jeff, he was too careful too conservative. Everything was weighed and calculated; accidents were not part of Jeff's life nor, she was sure, part of his death.

"He was fine when I left the University Monday", Katherine said, immediately realising that it sounded like a dumb and defencive statement, but it was out before she could stop it.

"I am sure he was. He was found dead at his home ... murdered." The Inspector paused, studying Katherine's face which was now looking very much like the proverbial stunned mullet.

"You hadn't heard about this yesterday?" Inspector Peyton asked.

"No. I called in sick early yesterday. Stomach bug. May have been something to do with the sea food I ate on Monday night; though Jen was all right."

"Can you tell me a little bit more about Professor Bollinger? I need to understand his habits, what he has been like lately, your relationship with him, things like that."

Now Katherine began to feel at a disadvantage again. "I'm not sure I can help much. The professor and I only worked together. He never mentioned his private life and everything we talked about revolved around our work." Katherine looked up, as if seeking inspiration before continuing; "I don't think he was married. At least he never mentioned a wife ... and ... there was something about the way he dressed - sort of careless, slightly scruffy, not the sort of thing a wife would have let pass. I don't think there was anything especially different about him Monday night, he just seemed his usual preoccupied self."

"How was he preoccupied?" asked the Inspector.

"With his work. It comes with the job I'm afraid; we are both very focussed. When we are working, nothing else matters. It's an occupational necessity, we live and breathe whatever problem we are working on. That's all.

"Anyway, how did he die?" Katherine asked, wanting to retake some initiative.

"He was found beaten and strangled in his home - not a very nice way to die."

A silence stood between the two women for a few seconds, while the Inspector studied Katherine's reactions and Katherine wondered how the Inspector could be so 'matter of fact' about death and whether there was any 'nice' way to die.

"What about your relationship with him; Did you get on well together?"

Katherine wanted to lie, to say they got on well but it wasn't true. "We only related at work. The Professor was ... well ... The Professor, and I was his assistant. It was as cut and dried as that."

"It sounds as if you didn't have a very good relationship", the Inspector observed.

"It was a working relationship. The Professor expected a lot and sometimes felt that I didn't deliver. He was a hard task master."

"An unfair task master?"

"Sometimes ... I guess."

"But not unfair enough to kill him?"

It was an unexpectedly blunt question that caught Katherine off guard as, indeed, it was intended to do.

"No. Absolutely not. I've worked for the Professor for three years and we had funding for our work for another two years. I have nearly completed my PhD and have a lot invested in completing this research. Without the Professor all that goes down the pan. I need him alive, not dead."

Katherine flushed with emotion and a satisfied smile lit up the Inspector's face.

"What exactly were you and the Professor working on?"

This was a question Katherine always dreaded. Whether it was a social occasion, or a formal request for information like now, she had never found the middle ground between a quick, flippant, answer and a thirty minute lecture. Flippant was definitely out on this occasion, so she would have to try for a shorter lecture.

"Do you know what Artificial Intelligence is?" Katherine asked, hoping to shortcut the lecture.

"Vaguely", the Inspector answered. "I think we use it in our computer systems for things like finger print matching, facial recognition and document analysis. Is that what you mean?"

"Close", said Katherine. "Except those examples are what we classify as 'weak A.I.' - basically nothing more than sets of rules applied by expert systems. What the professor was working on would be termed 'strong A.I.' Strong A.I. systems are capable not only of applying sets of predetermined rules, but of generating new rules of their own. Essentially, they are systems that can learn by themselves. The Professor was working on developing computer programs to drive thinking machines."

"I see," said the Inspector. Which made Katherine wonder whether the Inspector was particularly bright, or she had finally found the right formulae to describe her job in thirty seconds rather than thirty minutes.

"You said that you had funding for this research. Where did that funding come from?"

"I don't have the details of that. But I believe there were a number of sources. I am pretty sure that the finance industry were interested: Banks and insurance companies have been using various forms of AI for years to detect transactional behaviours that indicate fraud. Every time you make a transaction on your account over a certain value, it is analysed by a computer program to see whether it is suspicious. Visual identification is also an issue for large institutions, there are systems that can monitor the feeds from surveillance cameras, track individuals and raise alarms when suspicious behaviour is detected."

"Where there any other interested parties?"

"Well, of course, governments are very interested and also the military. I would be surprised if there wasn't funding from those sources."

Katherine hoped the Inspector would not press further on this topic. She had feigned ignorance and been evasive with generalities but, murder or no, the Official Secrets Act was beginning to loom large in her thinking.

Fortunately, the Inspector was interrupted by the constable returning. He handed her a piece of note paper which she read quickly, nodding as she did so. When she spoke again her tone was slightly softer, almost friendly.

"Miss Shuuman, I think we are almost done here. But I have one last question: do you know what the Professor would have been working on at home?"

"Well the same thing as we were doing at the university; the Professor often took work home. We both did."

"No, I don't mean paper work. I am wondering why the Professor would have a large computer installation at his house; the place is crammed from floor to ceiling. Have you any idea what he would have been using that equipment for?"

"No, I had no idea that the Professor had equipment at home."

"Then I wonder if, later today, let's say around one o'clock, you would oblige me by taking a look at the Professor's home. Our technical people have had an initial look but we don't want to damage anything by blundering around in something we don't understand."

Now Katherine was curious. Had the professor been holding out on her? What had he been up to at home?

"Yes I can manage that. What is the professor's address?"

"You don't know where he lives?"

"No, never been there and the closest he got to saying was that he lived over on the east side of the city."

"That's right, number fifteen, River Terrace. Can you find your way there?"

"Yes. That's not a problem. fifteen River Terrace, at one tomorrow afternoon then."

The inspector rose.

"I am sorry to have disturbed you so late at night. So, thank you for your time and assistance."

Katherine followed them both to the door and watched as they started down the stairs.

"Until tomorrow then", she said to their backs and closed the door.

Posted by fordy at 10:18 PM
Categories: Writing - Past Life (story)